By Bob Woodward
Rage is the sequel to Fear, and in the intervening years Bob Woodward has cooled toward his subject despite being granted greater access (seventeen on-the-record, taped conversations with Trump). But cooled only by a couple of degrees. Despite his conclusion, delivered in the book’s final sentence, that “Trump is the wrong man for the job,” this is a book that bends over backward to present the president in the best possible light. He is allowed to go on at length through many a “rambling, repetitious, often defensive monologue,” with little editorial comment by his interlocutor. His love letters to the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un are quoted from with none of the contempt they deserve. “They reveal a decision by both [Trump and Kim] to become friends. Whether genuine or not, probably only history will tell.” I have to say that this takes a reluctance to draw conclusions a bit too far.
You could say that Woodward was only giving Trump enough rope to hang himself – and there are certainly moments of this kind to be appalled by – but that’s not the way most of it plays. Instead you get the sense that he’s actually trying not only to be fair but to understand the person he’s talking to.
But what is there to understand? What is the point of talking to Trump? He lies about everything, and whatever the subject at hand just switches it so that he can go over his long, familiar list of obsessive grievances. We never learn anything, any more than we learn anything from his press conferences or tweets. What you see is what you get, or, to paraphrase Michelle Obama only slightly, he is what he is.
What is that? Someone very stupid, with no attention span (a minus number, in the words of Anthony Fauci), a sense of insecurity so deep one may as well call it paranoia, and a bottomless reservoir of anger and resentment. Trump appeals to people who hate, mainly out of a paranoid belief that everyone hates them, is laughing at them, or is somehow ripping them off. Probably the most dramatic moment in Rage comes as Woodward watches him respond to a video of various Democrats watching his 2019 State of the Union address. “You’re seeing hate!” he cries. “Hate! See the hate! See the hate!” We can call it Trump Derangement Syndrome.
George Will once observed that Trump was like the boring drunk at the bar, holding forth with his uneducated and uninformed thoughts on what’s wrong with the world. Close, but Trump doesn’t drink and one suspects he thinks bars are gross. Instead he is an even more easily recognizable type: the bitter man who sits at home yelling at his TV. Listening to him is a hard task, and we have to listen to him a lot in Rage.
How do members of his court cope? I don’t think they’ve ever been under any illusions as to the breadth and depth of Trump’s stupidity. Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state, would call him “a fucking moron.” James Mattis, secretary of defense, would describe the difficulty of imparting information to the president at briefings.
“But the facts would be dismissed, and we’d be off on one of those ramps that circled around and started going. And then you’re sitting there, and it’s not deference at that point. It’s grasping for a way to get it back on subject. And it was just very hard. And there wasn’t a lot of time for it.”
Mattis would later say that duty compelled him to put up with Trump’s stupidity, but when it went over the line to “felony stupid, strategically jeopardizing our place in the world and everything else, that’s when I quit.” This is a man who was under no illusions as to how ignorant, or felony stupid, Trump was. One imagines this must be a feeling shared by all those in Trump’s orbit, though many have opted to become enablers for some presumed gain. “Stay the course,” Mike Pence whispers in the ear of Dan Coats. “Stay the course.” But a course toward what? Regressive tax “reform” sucking more wealth into the hands of the plutocracy? “Conservative” judges?
It’s just possible, I suppose, that Jared Kushner actually respects Trump. His rationalizations for Trump’s erratic behaviour strike me as unconvincing though. Still, he is introduced to us here by Woodward in a manner that is polite and deferential to a fault. On the basis of what evidence could Jared Kushner possibly be described or even imagined as being “highly competent”? He sets up study groups and spouts business school jargon and gets absolutely nothing done. As a businessperson he’s been, arguably, an even more spectacular failure than his father-in-law.
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic the course was set for ruin. But as Adam Smith once observed, there’s a lot of ruin in a country. Sarah Kendzior has described the Republican project for America as consisting of stripping the country down to its parts and then selling them off to oligarchs. After four years of Trump this is a process that is now well advanced, and it’s hard to see how the “dismantling of the state,” to use Steve Bannon’s name for it, is going to be reversed. What is the cure for rage? Because this is the virus that is destroying America, and Trump, while he may be a super-spreader, is only a carrier of the disease.
Review first published online October 2, 2020.